February 26th - 11:50 PM

February 26th - 11:50 PM

A Chapter by Jim Parson



February 26th - 11:50 PM - Aligarh

I just had the most memorable day.  It’s really late, but I need to get this written down while it is still fresh in my mind.

Ashok Saxena and Mohindra Gulati picked us up at 10:00 this morning and we went back to the Polio Corrective Surgery Camp, this time to watch surgeries.  Unlike yesterday, the narrow, unlit halls were now packed full of the most destitute, dust covered, barefoot people - mothers in sarees and burkas holding their babies, old men and women with few teeth, entire families sitting on the dirty floors waiting for medical attention.  The poverty and desperation were so thick you had to brush them away from your face.  Rooms filled with people lying on gurneys without any other furniture or medical equipment of any kind in the room.  Have I said that already?  We walked through the halls stepping over those that could not stand.  It was so intense I had to remind myself to breathe.

Anil, Jay, Linda and I were invited to watch a surgery where they would cut the muscles of a polio-inflicted child’s leg to straighten it.  We walked into a surgery outer-room and lying unattended on a gurney was a man of approximately 30 with a hole in the top of his head.  There was a piece of dirty cloth stuffed in the hole, presumably to stop his brain from leaking out.  I can’t be certain he was still alive.  This suite was in the same condition as the rest of the hospital.


Given my propensity to turn green at the sight of blood (I passed out in a Lamaze class once when they showed the C-section film and it was animated), I decided not to watch the surgery and Anil joined me in the doctor’s changing room, or perhaps changing closet would be a better description.  Jay and Linda donned hair nets and masks and went in to watch.  The doctor was just finishing up the surgery, so they were not gone long.  I’m told that the surgery room was much more modern and antiseptic than the rest of the hospital.  I had given my camera to one of the attending people and got a couple of good pictures, including a shot of the child’s leg being sutured.


As we walked through the narrow hallways on our way out, past the countless, sober-faced people huddled on every square inch of floor, the desperation of the situation really hit me.  I just wish it was possible for me to accurately describe what I witnessed today.

Building calipers in the hospital…

After leaving the hospital, Ashok and Mr. Gulati took us to the “Founders House”, the home of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in the late 1800s.  Sir Syed founded the Aligarh Muslim University and his home was now a museum dedicated to his life.  It wasn’t terribly interesting for us, probably much like a visit to Brigham Young’s home wouldn’t be for them, but we feigned interest as it was obviously a landmark of significance to our hosts.


At 11:45 AM, we were taken to meet with the Vice-Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University, Mr. Naseem Ahmad.  The most at-risk population for polio are the Muslims, as they have been told by fanatical religious leaders that this is all a Western plot and the polio drops will cause their children to be sterile, thus wiping out the race over time.  Without the intervention of high-ranking Muslims like Mr. Naseem, polio could never be eradicated.  He has worked hard to convince all Muslims that they must immunize their children, but there are still areas of resistance in the Muslim community because of the zealots and the lack of education among the indigent.  We had a very formal tea and asked a few questions and then left for lunch.  It was very informative and we learned many things that we didn’t know, which isn’t really saying much since we knew nothing at all before arriving here.  Mr. Naseem was an intelligent, knowledgeable man and a gracious, albeit very formal, host.

After lunch, the day got really interesting.  Our agenda read “4:45 PM - Public meeting in Shahjamal Polio resistant area”.  Who knew what that meant?  Well, we were going to one of these areas of resistance in the Muslim slums to try to convince people - worse-than-poor, illiterate, toothless people - to immunize their children.


We arrived by car, through filthy, narrow streets barely wide enough for two cars to cross.  The streets were filled with people, walking in the streets, squatting in front of their lean-to businesses, riding bicycles, with ox-drawn carts often blocking the street.  It was by far the worst poverty we have witnessed thus far.  We inched through the slum until we reached the spot of the public meeting.  There was a large 3-sided tent set up with maybe 200 people sitting and standing in and around the tent, many looking a bit surly.


Dirty, shoeless children were everywhere.  When we got out of the car, we were mobbed as if we were celebrities.  None of them had ever seen a white person before so we were quite the novelty.  I’ve said that before too, huh.

We were escorted through the crowd to the front of the tent where we were seated in a line facing the crowd, just like a press conference.  At this point, we had no idea why we were there.  But we soon found out.  The speaker, who I never did meet, was speaking in their language, so we didn’t know what was going on.  Then he introduced us and asked us to come up one at a time to address the crowd.  We all just kind of looked at each other.  Fortunately, Linda was called up first and Jay second, so I had time to plan out what to say (Anil translated).  We all spoke of the importance of immunizing every child or polio could never be eradicated.  It went pretty well in spite of it being popped on us with no preparation.


But what happened next made this whole trip worthwhile.  An old woman was guided up to where Jay and I sat.  She had cataracts so bad that her pupils were almost invisible.  She put her hand out and touched the top of Jay’s head and said a few words, then my head and slid her hand down until she was cupping my chin.  She was so close I could smell the dust on her.  She spoke some more in her language, then turned and was immediately swallowed up by the crowd.


I turned to Anil to ask what she had said.  He said that she spoke a blessing for us, our children and our grandchildren for the work we are doing here.  He said she was obviously someone of great respect in this community.  I was extremely moved.  But she was gone and I never got to thank her.


But it didn’t end there.  The children had been kept out of the tent by guards that were constantly shooing them out.  But they were very curious and were peeking in, under and around the tent flaps.  Whenever we made eye contact with one of them, they would immediately giggle and duck away.  Now that the meeting was over, they overran the place.  They all wanted to shake our hands.  We would wave to them or wink and smile and they would go crazy.  It was then that I noticed how incredibly beautiful these children are, in spite of the dirt and grime and poverty.  Their faces were truly beautiful.  Yet the adults were far from it - wrinkled and weathered and toothless.  It occurred to me that if these children only had a chance at a different life they would grow to be some of the most beautiful people on the planet.  But they won’t.  Their hard life will eventually turn them into their parents.


The children mobbed us as we made our way back to our car, dancing along beside us with huge smiles and giggles if we gave them a wink or a wave.  Jay was in his element, teaching them to high five.  They took our hands and stayed with us all the way to the car.  I lingered a little bit too long.  Linda and Jay had already gotten into the car and closed the door.  The children crowded around it on all sides with their faces right up against the windows.  But I was still outside and couldn’t get to the car and the kids weren’t moving.  I eased my way through the throng but couldn’t open the door with all the kids stacked up outside it.  Working slowly and carefully, I got it open and got inside, but then I couldn’t close it because they all crowded in.  Some of the adults started shooing them away and I was able to get the door closed.  As we drove away, they ran along beside the car, waving and laughing and shouting goodbye.  It was something I will never forget.

This evening we attended a Rotary 100th Anniversary celebration at the Rotary Club of Aligarh City, but that story will have to wait because it is 1:30 AM and I have writer’s cramp big-time.

By the way, Jay decided to get his own room.  Evidently my snoring was an issue.  Jon can attest to it also from that first night in Delhi.  Sorry guys!

© 2011 Jim Parson

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The scene with the elderly woman, wow, very cool. I can picture it. That must have been incredible! I can see why you decided not to sit in for the operation, given your propensity to faint in child birth classes. I'd love to have seen the actual surgeries. There are a group of doctors and dentists that do surgeries in third world countries to surgically correct cleft lip and palate deformities, THAT is what I'd love to be a part of...to be able to make such a difference in a life...simply amazing!

Posted 9 Years Ago

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Added on April 9, 2011
Last Updated on April 10, 2011
Tags: India, Rotary, travel, polio, immunizations


Jim Parson
Jim Parson

Los Angeles, CA

I have been a banker for the past 28 years, but my dream has always been to write. I thought maybe it was time to give it a try. I don't think I'm the greatest writer, but I think I can tell a prett.. more..

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